"Do you see the targets?" I ask "Agent Q" through my covert earpiece as we walk toward Trafalgar Square.
"There," I say, catching a glimpse. "They are headed south toward the lion statue on the east staircase."
"Targets identified," she confirms over the static.
We pick up the pace, adrenaline pumping. "You go ahead and I'll trail behind," I say, panting.
My mission for the weekend: to track organized-crime members linked to terrorism. According to an encrypted e-mail I received that morning at my hotel, the targets, a man and a woman, had arrived in town to sell weapons to an unidentified network of people. I was to find the players and intercept them before the exchange could occur, thereby saving the world.
Within hours of arriving, I was undergoing agent skill training at the Carlisle Street headquarters of Quintessentially Secure, a privately owned global-security and bodyguard firm with offices in London, New York, Dubai, and Hong Kong. Launched two years ago as a member company of the private concierge club, Quintessentially, its founders are former British and American Army operatives, U.S. Secret Service agents, and emergency-rescue officers, including my contact, David, who wants his last name withheld for security reasons. When he and his team aren't busy running point on kidnapping cases or training diplomatic bodyguards and special forces, they have fun thinking up experiential packages for James Bond junkies and Jason Bourne wannabes. "We run missions with agents who are still working in the industry," says David, who supplies security service to Quintessentially members and international clients. His team of ninjas trained me in unarmed self-defense, including how to thwart an attacker who is using a U.S. Marine–issue KA-BAR (extend your arms toward him, keeping the elbows in and palms facing you, then hit his forearm with yours while kneeing him). Prices range from $2,500 per person for a one-day "Secrets of the Spy" package—complete with a visit to the MI6 headquarters in London—to $50,000 for a full week's mission.)
Though the tours are designed to be entertaining, they also teach real skills, such as anti-ambush driving, electronic surveillance, and facial-and-body-language interpretation. "I work with high-net-worth individuals who have asked me to teach them the cold realities of the trade," says David. "We had one hedge-fund manager ask me to teach him how to counter an assassin." From that conversation, David created "The Day of the Jackal"—named after the 1973 movie about a professional assassin—which teaches the principles of disguise and tracking, as well as "fun stuff like weapons use and anti-ambush skills" he says.
That one didn't appeal to me, but I did like the sound of the "Quintessentially Bourne" adventure, billed as a high-octane secret spy operation that culminates in a race against time in the North African desert. Because I had signed up solo, David assigned an employee, whom I called Q, to team up with me. Over the next couple of hours, we designed a surveillance box around the targets, really employees of the firm. I took a bird's-eye view of the target from Westminster Bridge, while Q followed on foot toward the London Eye. We crisscrossed a park, picking up newspapers to hide our faces, then moved catlike behind trees and streetlight poles, joining tour groups so as not to be seen. Q and I kept in contact over the radio, often laughing at how silly we must have looked talking into our shoulders.
Then, the second we let our guard down, we were ambushed. Out of nowhere, a man in black with a skullcap jumped out of a Range Rover, pointing a Glock 17 in my face. I froze, completely forgetting my training. And for a split second, I lost sight of the game and actually thought I was going to die in front of the Charing Cross Underground station. (I found out later the firm had warned local police about the ambush in case passersby mistook it for real.)
When I turned to run, another man blocked and grabbed me. He put a black bag over my head and forced me into the car. I tried to play it off, joking that I was sufficiently scared and that it was OK to remove the bag and call it quits. "This isn't funny anymore," I said. No one responded. In the silence, my head starting spinning. Did the real Secret Service see me—a black woman who could pass as Middle Eastern—acting suspicious and assume I was a terrorist? Did I have fingerprints on file because I didn't have my passport with me for identification.
After 20 minutes the car stopped, and I was yanked out like a criminal and cuffed to a chair in a warehouse. Lucky for me, the warehouse was part of the "Hostage Rescue" package, and I was just passing through to eat lunch. Afterward, I actually interrogated a pretend suspect and engaged in a high-speed car chase, deliberately smashing into the target's vehicle. And while I never saved the world, I did make it home in one piece, which was good enough for me.